Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert published a new book on the mission of the church What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. I want to be generous in this discussion and I certainly think these guys have the best of intentions. However, this book is extremely frustrating to me and I’m only on page 67.
While DeYoung and Gilbert set out to provide what they think is a more biblical vision of the church’s mission, they have in the end presented a reductionistic definition of mission that cannot be sustained by the New Testament passages to which they appeal. The end result in my view is a sub-biblical understanding of the church’s mission.
This book will no doubt be influential in some circles and I think their argument needs to be critiqued. Of course there are many things with which I agree, not least on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the nonnegotiable place of proclamation in the church’s mission. I have no intention to go page-by-page and point out my disagreements. And likely what I think means very little to them or those who will read the book. However, I want to flag here a few points in the first two chapters that particularly concern me.
1. DeYoung and Gilbert want to stress that the church’s mission is singularly to make disciples (62). For them, this means that the mission of the church is not justice, mercy and faithfulness in the world. While these are good things that the individual disciples exhibit in response to the Gospel, these things are not to be confused with the church’s mission. This argument is faulty not least because it doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of its own assertion. What does it mean to be a disciple? What is it that the church is to teach disciples? If the mission of the church is discipleship – and on this I couldn’t agree more! – then the activity of discipling means the very things they wish to preclude from the mission. If the mission is to make disciples than the mission is to bring justice, mercy and faithfulness into tangible existence. Furthermore, they completely overlook the fact that the teaching of Jesus noted in the so-called Great Commission includes for Matthew the whole Torah (Matt 5:17-19). The existence that the Twelve minus one were to create among the nations is a Torah-oriented society.
If these things were not enough, what about the commission of Matt 10? DeYoung and Gilbert falsely claim that Jesus never went to a town with the stated purpose of healing or casting out demons. Is this really true? At the global level, Matt 4—9 shows us of what Jesus mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” consisted: proclamation and procurement of the kingdom. Jesus both spoke and acted. This was his mission. To confirm this dual-prong mission one need look no further than the mission of the Twelve in Matt 10. There Jesus sends the Twelve to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God. I’m sorry, but to reduce the miracles of Jesus to simply “corroboration” is wrong. It is true that John’s Jesus does “signs” and not miracles. The synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke) present Jesus’ miracles as foretastes of kingdom existence. Of course they confirm or corroborate the message of the soon-coming kingdom, but they more so inaugurate it. I could say so much more. OK, one more . . . there is an implicit assumption in their thinking that divides the individual disciple from the corporate church. What might be good thing for the individual disciple to do (justice, mercy and faithfulness), is precisely not the priority for the church. This dichotomy is wholly unbiblical in my view.
2. Their handling of John’s commission in John 20:21 is reductionistic and nearsighted. Jesus tells the disciples: “As the father sent me, even so I am sending you”. Readers of John who are fully acquainted with the whole of the Gospel, realize what an extraordinary commission this in fact is. Jesus is saying that the church is to be for the world what he was. As Jesus was the glory of God in the flesh (1:14), so now the church in his absence as it is filled by his Spirit, is to be to the world. John has the grandest expression of ecclesiology in the New Testament. Jesus is no mere model for our mission, we carry on His mission. Furthermore, when read appropriately, passages like John 6:41-59 and John 13, we see that in fact the mission of the church is a cruciformed mission. One thinks of Paul saying in Col. 1:24 that he is filling up in his flesh the sufferings of Christ that are still lacking. It’s not that Paul or John are saying that Jesus death was inadequate to achieve full atonement and reconciliation with God. Rather, it is that the church lays down its life in service to the world as Jesus did. I could not disagree with DeYoung and Gilbert more when they attempt to disconnect service from the church’s mission. I just can’t believe they are making this argument! What does John 13 mean?
3. For the life of me, I can’t see why this book needed to be written. Why would we ever want to narrow the mission of the church? God is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20). They are of course right that the proclamation of the Gospel is central, even the core of the mission, and a church that ceases to do this is no longer the church of Jesus. But their approach to reading the Great Commission texts so reductionistically is bad Bible interpretation in my view.
In my judgment, they do not provide a more biblically robust understanding of the church’s mission. I have only read two chapters of the book. There are still chapters on the Story of the Bible (3), the Gospel (4), and the Kingdom (5). But I can see where this is heading and I think there are real issues here.